Anni Furniss heard shuffled footsteps. Peering up from the piano she was priming with thick brushstrokes for a fundraiser, she saw John’s hand accidentally resting on the wet paint. This first encounter sparked a conversation that would later turn into a 9-year relationship and marriage.
Anni and John Furniss met at the Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Vancouver, Washington. Anni was teaching art to youth from a nearby shelter in one of the school’s classrooms, and John was a student learning how to repair pianos.
They quickly connected over a shared passion for making art. “Most of my paintings I described to him,” Anni said. “In the beginning when we first were together, it was really difficult for me that he couldn’t see them.” Since then, Anni has found the language to describe her art to her partner.
Anni paints ethereal scenes with earthy acrylic paint tones. “I usually choose a cool color palette, and it’s kind of surreal and whimsical, like colors that bring a lot of emotion,” Anni said. “And they’re, I would say, peaceful and comforting.”
John creates one-of-a-kind wood pieces using a powered saw and lathe, even though he is completely blind. At the age of 16, John survived a suicide attempt by a self-inflicted gunshot, resulting in total blindness.
While piano repair was the type of hands-on job John wanted and it worked well with his engineering mind, it lacked creativity and a steady income. Anni encouraged him to step away from the job and focus full time on woodworking, a skill he picked up in his early 20s at a school for the blind in Salt Lake City. His woodshop teacher, who was partially blind, taught him the basics as well as provided the expensive machinery and tools he needed.
“I thought, ‘A crazy bunch of blind people working with woodworking tools?’” John said. “I’ve always been an adventurous person, and I’ve always really looked up to craftsmen. … Walking into that woodshop changed my life forever.”
Today, John has developed his skills to craft regal bowls, canisters, lamps, honey pots and tables. Different wood shades, including black walnut, sapele and pine, intersect his pieces, creating complex designs and patterns. Each piece is unique.
“I have a very three-dimensional mind, and I’m able to very accurately translate what I feel into a visual image in my mind and vice versa,” John said. “I like to call it a computer design program in my mind. … When I’m really planning a piece out, I have seen the finished product before the wood has even started to be worked on.”
The couple support each other’s work. John suggests scenes Anni can paint, including one finished piece that depicts two whales with hot air balloons attached to their bellies, soaring over a mirrored ocean landscape. Anni sometimes sculpts and paints clay knobs that will later be attached to John’s woodworking pieces. Anni also helps John sort wood by color and type, all from the workshop they share in Washougal, Washington.
Living with blindness
Life for John and his relationship with blindness haven’t been easy. A drug addiction and periods of homelessness, made worse by the fact that he couldn’t find employment, caused a vicious cycle. A felony charge John received in Colorado when he was 19 for conspiracy to sell/distribute marijuana compounded everything. This charge coupled with his blindness made his job pool nonexistent. Eighteen long years later, he was granted clemency for the charge in 2019 by Colorado’s Gov. Jared Polis.
“It was so difficult to clear a nonviolent felony, which literally isn’t illegal anymore,” John said. “I almost wasn’t able to continue going to school because no one [in Washington] would rent me an apartment. They literally said, ‘We don’t rent to felons.’”
John turns the challenges he has survived into opportunities with Anni. They approach and speak at schools to educate people about blindness. In the pandemic, John and Anni have turned to TikTok as a way to connect with more people. They have over 700,000 followers.
“When we were first on TikTok, people would be like ‘Why is John here? He’s blind!’ And I would have to explain over and over again that we’re here to spread awareness about blindness.” Anni said.
Under the name @theblindwoodsman, John shows in short videos how he operates machinery in his woodshop and other daily routines, like making food in the cooking series “Cooking with the Lights Out.”
John said they in no way hoped TikTok would be a business venture. “We were just kind of having fun with it,” he said.
“That took our customer base from the local area to literally international.” Anni and John have managed to communicate that blindness is not a disconnect; instead, there are varied ways people can express themselves, even through classic mediums.
Read more of the July 14-20, 2021 issue.